21 January 2007

Divided by a Common Language at Ptolemy's Gate

This week's example of an untranslated British term comes from Ptolemy’s Gate, by Jonathan Stroud. Contemplating the prospect of entering a human’s body, the genie Bartimaeus says: “Well, I'm not too enamored of being encased inside your earthly gunge.”

The Miramax/Hyperion edition has changed the British spelling of “enamoured,” but left in “gunge.” The word’s unsavory implications are evident from Bartimaeus’s attitude, not to mention the way the word sounds. But what exactly is “gunge”?

As British slang, “gunge” dates only to the 1960s--far less
ancient than Bartimaeus (but one hallmark of his narrative voice is that he uses contemporary idioms more than anyone else). Worthless Word for the Day has explained that “gunge” means:

any messy or clogging substance, esp. one considered otherwise unidentifiable; also, general rubbish, clutter, filth
The word gained its popularity through the modern media--specifically, television. UK-based experts trace the phenomenon to the comic genii of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and their 1965-70 TV series Not Only...But Also:
Moore and Cook set about developing sequences of lively comedy sketches linked by musical interludes and other set-piece events variously featuring themselves or guests. Among the most successful of these latter items was Poets Cornered, in which invited comedians were required to compose (without hesitation) instant rhyming poems, or risk being plunged into a vat of gunge--the first appearance of the so-called “gunge tanks” that became such a feature of zany quiz shows and children's programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. Among those to brave the gunge were Frank Muir, Spike Milligan and Barry Humphries.
British gunge came to the US via Canada, but under a different name. In the mid-1970s an Englishman named Roger Price created some Thames Television comedy sketch shows for kids with semi-professional young actors called You Must Be Joking and You Can't Be Serious. Then he moved to Ottawa, that center of culture, and recreated the formula with a show eventually titled You Can't Do That on Television.

Ah, you remember that, you children of the 1980s! Price’s odd, low-rent series became the first big hit on the Nickelodeon cable channel. It featured gunge falling from the ceiling, but under a new name: “slime.” That word and substance then became a hallmark of the Nickelodeon brand, inspiring a “slime fountain” in Orlando and shows like Slime Time Live. So when Bartimaeus says “gunge,” Americans should think “slime.”

Gunge apparently continues to be a staple of British children's television, leading to this curious adjudication, which I came across while Googling--excuse me, researching this topic. In 2004 there was a dispute over a BBC TV show called Dick and Dom in da [sic] Bungalow:
James Walsh, who is 11 years old, was one of a number of children competing for prizes in this programme. During the programme, James was “gunged”, that is covered in food. He lost the final word memory game to another contestant, who was given a second chance by the presenter after getting a word wrong. This resulted in James losing the entire competition.

Mr Michael Walsh, James’ father, complained on his behalf that his son was treated unfairly in the programme.
And they say we Americans are litigious.

1 comment:

Jude said...

This is very cool. It makes me want to re-read Ptolemy's Gate.